Trapped by the System – the Plight of Coca Farmers in Colombia
A reflection from the recent Drugs and Disorder conference
(“image of coca farmers Colombia – Bing images,” n.d.)
I had a chance to attend the Drugs and Disorder Conference from Feb 14-16, where I had an opportunity to learn about how drugs affect individual lives in Myanmar and Colombia ; I specifically learned how the demand for the cocaine that comes from the manufacturing process of coca leaves has impacted farmers in Colombia.
The Colombia situation particularly interested me because the presenters discussed work they were doing in tandem with local human rights organizations to ensure coca farmers were taking steps to protect their health as they grew coca. Unfortunately, the researchers found that farmers were not consistently implementing all the recommended safety measures. So, why would farmers cultivate coca in the first place? The demand for coca and its higher financial value makes it such that farmers grow coca for their livelihoods over other legal crops to support and try to improve the lives of their families and communities. The other question here is why farmers choose not to implement the aforementioned safety measures. I asked Linda Ordonez at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia to shed some light on why farmers weren’t prioritizing their health even though they were educated about safety measures.
It is essential to note the individual farmer’s multiple internal and external forces stresses, most notably the high demand for the coca itself and the legality issues, as the farmers are growing something illegal in the eyes of the Colombian government. Linda informed me that coca cultivation must be done quickly and succinctly to avoid seizure by the government, meaning the utilization of harmful chemicals that help the coca grow faster. Because many of these growth chemicals have been banned as coca growth-enhancers, the farmers receive them in unmarked packages, not knowing all the potential hazards. On top of this, farmers are also forced to work at night, grow their coca in fragments, and hide coca with other legal goods – all in an attempt to avoid erradicadores – a fitting Spanish cognate for those that confiscate and destroy coca.
While this creates a complex set of policy challenges for the Colombian government, the ones caught in the middle of the coca demand and government attempts to erase it are the farmers trying to find a means of subsistence.
For more information on this situation, Linda’s work, and other topics covered at the conference, please visit Drugs & (dis)order: Findings and future directions – GCRF – Drugs and Disorder (drugs-and-disorder.org).